Thursday, November 24, 2011

Korean Film Downunder 2: Interest & Availability

Oh My God, I am blogging again! 

Well I am finally back on the blog after a single lazy entry 7 months ago which basically entailed watching youtube videos. But enough about that, before I get caught up doing something else I will try and get this blog finished. Funnily enough I have just noticed I have about 20 blogs just sitting in 'drafts' at the moment, which one day I may get around to publishing. Now this entry is not the original Part 2 of my look at Korean Film Downunder, but is what I felt like exploring next. Feel free to read the first part which looks at distribution and genre. This entry tries to link another 2 factors into the analysis, interest and accessibility. 

Following on from my look at distributions link to genre, I had believed the fact that the level of interest in Korean film in Australia was where it was at due to what was available to people. Generally films released and readily talked about fit into the crime thriller or horror genres, and this can of course only have limited appeal as its marginalising the audience. But as stated over at the KOFFIA blog Hungry for Drama, we have seen that comedies and dramas have been some of the favourite films at the festival. So why hasn't there been a crossover between those that love Korean dramas into watching Korean films?

Great image from the great Podcast, "What's Korean Cinema?"
Given the much greater interest in Korean dramas worldwide than film, I came up with the original slogan for the 1st KOFFIA as "Hungry for Drama", which tried to capitalise on this great interest. Of course the 'hungry' part relates to peoples strong interest in Korean food. Many a Sydneysider may have experienced a tasty Korean BBQ, but a Korean film? Likely Not. (Rather ironic given this week at Cinema on the Park we feature the controversial classic "Obaltan", the same name as a Korean restaruant off Pitt Street). The slogan was very popular and also a bit of fun, but it didn't necessarily bring in the droves of drama fanatics. And thus I was once again convinced that the content of Korean melodramatic TV shows was what was keeping their interest. This was until I started to delve further into the situation. 

The drama of all dramas, "Winter Sonata"

The 'Korean wave' or Hallyu has often been stated to originate from the late 90's, with the spread of Korean popular culture throughout South East Asia. The primary propelling force of this was Korean dramas (episodic TV Shows). Korean content became enormously popular through China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other territories. Now forgetting about the quality of the shows, or the appeal of their gorgeous casts, there is one simple fact that made them popular: They were readily available to watch. 

Originally exported to these countries through the likes of NHK in Japan, TVJade in Hong Kong, Saigon BTN in Vietnam and the GMA Network in the Philippines, the content is now easily accessible through multiple platforms. Be it broadcast on Cable or Satellite television, distributed on English-friendly DVDs or more recently available to legally download on websites such as MySoju, DramaFever, and countless others. For content that generally appeals to young teens who may not be that tech savvy but are extremely passionate about watching new content as soon as its available, these sites have been a fantastic distribution (or exhibition in terms of streaming services) for Korean dramas. 

Avid fans need constant content to consume

The improved digital infrastructure of the Internet has since increased the popularity and spread of K-pop both in Australia and worldwide, but Korean movies have not quite been as successful. Certain types of films have been (namely films distributed by foreign companies into a local market, or those screened in festivals) but nowhere near to the level of television or music. And a key to this is availability. 

Something I have been exploring with my programming at Cinema on the Park, the weekly film night I run at the Korean Cultural Office, is giving exposure to films people simply have not had access to. Apart from the average of 5 Korean films a year released on DVD, the few screenings on SBS and The World Movies Channel, and rare events such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Seoul Searching program and Korean film at festivals, gaining access to Korean film down under isn't easy. (At that last link Matt Ravier talks about difficulty accessing arthouse, independent or country specific cinema in Sydney, and the situation is still fairly similar today). While yes the die hard fan such as myself will keep track of all these releases and watch everything he can, the same can not be expected of the teen market that dramas launch from. For starters around 95% of the Korean films shown on those various platforms would have an OFLC classification that would not allow them to even watch it in the first place!

Anthony C.Y. Leong's "Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong"

Now I am not claiming the only people to watch dramas are teenagers, definitely not, but it is an age where people have often become interested in the medium. Korean film however does not have this platform in Australia. I asked nearly all of this years KOFFEEs (KOFFIA Volunteers) why they volunteered for the festival, and the number 1 answer was "I watch Korean dramas", rather than "I love Korean film". They then followed that by stating "I don't know where to find Korean films" or "It's hard to see Korean cinema". We screened Park Chan-wook's seminal war drama "Joint Security Area" at this years festival in what we thought was a classic screening for people to witness it on the big screen, whereas in actual fact the vast majority of the audience had never seen the film before. Even when I have tried to source guests for film events, many film critics and academics have sincerely stated "I haven't seen enough Korean cinema to take part", which is a great shame.

The content for a significant portion of Korean movies is the basic melodrama that the K-dramas follow. It may be in the form of a romantic comedy, sex comedy or family dramedy, but many films fit the same market that dramas appeal to. They simply don't get exposed to as wide an audience. The success and popularity of "My Sassy Girl" is a perfect example, a film that is so popular around Asia that its director Kwak Jae-yong has made his recent films in Japan and China, rather than Korea itself. A few steps are hopefully going to improve this, namely the school specific session we introduced to the Korean Film Festival program, and Im Soon-rye's terrific "Fly Penguin" being added to the resources of NSW School syllabus for Korean studies.

The gorgeous Moon So-ri in the wonderfully constructed "Fly Penguin" (2009)

A recent initiative is for dramas from South East Asian nations to be shot in Korea as part of a shooting incentive from Korea, which in turn brings increased levels of tourism to the country amongst other benefits, and has proven successful. Examples include Malaysian dramas "Green Rose" and "Unmarked Grave", and the primary film example being the Thai hit romantic comedy "Hello Stranger". The Thai industry has long modelled itself on the successes of Korea, and this was the next progressive step. The film received huge audiences, primarily of South East Asian origin, when it was released in Sydney and Melbourne earlier this year, not to mention the US$5 million it earned in Thailand itself. It is South East Asian Korean drama obsession summed up in 1 film.

"Hello Stranger" homage to "Winter Sonata"

The reason I bring that example in is that its clear it isn't the actual Korean drama themselves that is the popular element. Its the contents of them. Most of the dramas released in South East Asia are dubbed into the local language. The films Kwak Jae-yong is making in China and Japan, are in Chinese and Japanese with Chinese and Japanese cast. It is not necessarily the Korean language or cast or locations that is the appeal of Korean dramas. It is the drama itself. The stories, the romance, the comedy, the drama, the characters and the emotion. Something that was fantastically replicated in "Hello Stranger". It is not just an homage to Korean dramas and shot in Korea, it is a Korean drama itself in every sense of the word. As is "My Sassy Girl", "My Girl and I" and many other terrific Korean films. Thus I feel if Korean movies could only have a greater accessibility or availability, then the audience would be just as passionate about them as dramas. This is just an example through films that meet the drama formula, but I think it could eventually expand to other genres and cinematic styles and address all groups of viewers that embrace Korean film in Australia (I will look further at these different groups in the next edition).

"My Girl and I", with Cha Tae-hyun in his usual role

With 29 sessions of Cinema on the Park this year, and a total audience figure that will reach nearly 1,000 by years end, I really do hope it enables new viewers to see new Korean films they had previously not been able to source. With the University of Sydney taking their mammoth Korean DVD catalogue off the shelves, and with the Korean Cultural Office Sydney not providing a loan service for their library at this stage, it could be the best opportunity for people to gain access to these films. Now I run the night so of course I will promote it, but I really do believe its a great opportunity for the people of Sydney. When the Korean Cultural Centre in the UK launched their film night in 2008, a local Korean Film Club soon established itself through London Korean Links (Which you can read about the intriguing origins here). I hope something similar happens in Sydney.

Kieran Tully
Follow me @TullysRecall

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